There’s no question that South Africans love their SUVs almost as much as their luxury cars. Perhaps it has something to do with our African continent-bred yearning for the great outdoors – or, more prosaically, could it be that it’s a reflection of a preference for road-dominating machines that endow their occupants with a sense of security (and supremacy)?
Either way, a quick scan of the traffic on any given morning will reveal that the SUV count at least equals, and sometimes even exceeds, the normal passenger car tally. From behemoths like the Audi Q7 and the Mercedes-Benz G-class, to less imposing designs like the Kia Sportage and the Ford Kuga, the SUV segment remains one of the most buoyant in an ever-softening new car market.
That alone should be enough reason for General Motors SA to contest the large SUV segment. But the success of the Toyota Fortuner must have also played a part.
The Fortuner combines a big form factor and lusty engines with space for up to seven and a rugged, go-anywhere character. It’s not smart in the premium brand sense of the word, but it’s well equipped, tows heavy loads with ease, and expresses good value.
Those attributes have been attractive enough to realise an average of 800-plus Fortuner sales every month, and to alert the likes of GM to the potential of similar vehicles. Enter the Trailblazer, which made its initial South African debut in 2012 with a five-model range comprising 4×2 and 4×4 models, as well as petrol and diesel drivetrains.
Two years later, the Trailblazer attracts in the region of 150 or so buyers monthly, which is well off the Fortuner tally. The only other real alternative is the Ford Everest, but it too trails the Toyota’s sales pace significantly.
Against that backdrop, it’s hardly surprising that the Trailblazer has undergone a series of updates only 19 months after its initial debut. On paper, the changes look fairly minor, but as a day spent negotiating the tar and gravel roads of Mpumalanga proved, there’s more to the latest Trailblazer than meets the eye.
And really, there isn’t much to see from the outside. The Trailblazer remains a bold and handsome SUV in a rugged, almost utilitarian kind of way. It lacks the sleekness and the polish of the premium players in the SUV game.
But that’s not necessarily a bad thing: while those machines tend to be challenged by little more than shopping mall kerbs, the Trailblazer’s rugged presence almost encourages its owners to head off the beaten track, and to experience what a vehicle such as this was designed for.
The exterior design has remained unchanged, combining the strong, prominently branded Chev front-end with a muscular, angular silhouette and a wagon-like, tailgated rear. The proportions are handsome, and the chrome detailing adds some visual lustre, although it might be a little bright for some.
The interior dishes up some surprises, however: our test car’s dark grey interior looked smarter and more practical than some of the lighter finishes offered by the Trailblazer in the past.
You still get three rows of seats, with the third row comprising two fold-up seats that are more substantial than expected, even if the limited legroom suggests that they’re best suited to younger children than gangly teenagers or adults. When in use, they also leave very little space for luggage.
The middle row is split 60/40 and folds down, or even tumbles forward. In fact, the interior can be configured in an almost endless variety of seating vs. cargo space combination, adding to the overall versatility of the Chev.
Pride of place on the dashboard belongs to an all-new infotainment system dubbed MyLink. It’s controlled via a 7-inch full-colour touchscreen display, and offers some features unique to this segment.
Firstly, it integrates closely with Android and iOS-driven smartphones, using Bluetooth for both hands-free telephony and audio streaming. It can also use the connectivity offered by the smartphone to link to the Internet and connect to a choice of two integrated Internet radio services: Stitcher, for podcasts, and TuneIn for music.
Of course, MyLink still offers reception of conventional radio services via its FM/AM tuner, and also provides USB and auxiliary audio inputs. The USB input is fully iPod-compatible, but will also read flash drives, and play back audio and video files stored on the drive.
It’s easily the most comprehensive system of its kind I’ve seen in this segment, and it works seamlessly.
Overall levels of standard equipment on the top-spec LTZ model I drove are extensive. Among the highlights are a separate and comprehensive trip computer with economy display, a multifunction steering wheel with audio, telephone and cruise control switchgear, automatic climate control, remote central locking, and electric windows and mirrors.
The Trailblazer range still comprises five models, spanning two turbodiesel and one petrol engine, a choice of manual or automatic transmissions, and two-wheel and four-wheel drive. The 2.5-litre and 2.8-litre turbodiesel engines have both been upgraded.
The 2,5-litre unit is now credited with 120kW and 380Nm, while the larger 2.8-litre mill delivers 144kW and 500Nm. The engines are also supposed to be more efficient, although to be fair, big SUVs aren’t meant to be economy kings, and unless you’re pussyfooting about, their appetite for diesel will remain a healthy one.
On the move, the 2.8 feels lusty and muscular, easily shaking off the inertia of its two ton-plus kerb weight, and responding eagerly to throttle inputs. The auto gearbox is a good choice, delivering seamless changes, and generally making the most of the urge on offer. It’s especially good in rough off-road terrain, easing the driver’s task.
Talking of all-wheel drive, the Trailblazer’s 4×4 system features a proper low-range transfer case, linked to electronic traction control. The latter might not please traditionalists, who prefer mechanical diff locks, but again, the electronic system works without driver intervention, and gets the job done, albeit with some initial wheelspin. It’s certainly better for novices.
For me, however, the highlight was the ride quality and the suspension, which appears to have undergone some fine-tuning since I last drove a Trailblazer. At that time, I was somewhat indifferent about the big SUV’s road manners, but the example I drove this week felt more composed, and more forgiving on the rough stuff.
It’s not a sports car by any means, and predictably, the steering is less than direct. But the Trailblazer will turn in willingly enough, while the suspension easily soaks up the kind of road surfaces that make you cringe in anticipation of the knock to follow.
The five-link rear set-up certainly assists in overall chassis response, and on tar, you end up winding your way through the twisties with greater verve than expected. Big 18-inch wheels, beefy ABS brakes and electronic stability control all assist in making rapid progress in the Trailblazer feel safe, too.
Does this latest Chev Trailblazer have the right stuff? That of course depends on what stuff you’re expecting. It’s no competition for the BMW X5 or Audi Q5 as far as premium appeal, refinement and outright dynamic talent are concerned. But then, it doesn’t want to be.
More pertinent, perhaps, is that the Trailblazer is now a more convincing rival of the Toyota Fortuner. It’s priced head-on against the Toyota, and you’ll need to do a careful, model-specific analysis of equipment versus price to establish which is the better buy in features terms.
The Chev’s drivetrain is certainly up to muster, and the 2.8-litre turbodiesel I drove has all the wallop one could wish for in a vehicle like this: muscle that will also come in handy when towing, or loaded to the brim.
Could the updated Chev Trailblazer be the large SUV that finally takes the fight to the Fortuner? Only a properly executed head-to-head will deliver a definitive verdict, but based on a day’s hard driving, I have to say that the Chev has the form to become a real threat. DM
Chevrolet Trailblazer 2.8 LTZ 4×4 AT
Retail price: R506,400
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